Board Member Spotlight: Christopher Johns

5 Apr 2020 4:30 PM | Administrator (Administrator)

An Interview with Christopher Johns

FLFPC Board Member and environmental attorney Christopher Johns took time to discuss his interest in policy, how he interacts with food policy in his work, and how policy can help fix gaps and challenges to create a brighter future. Below are some highlights from his interview.

Watch his full interview here:

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Chris Johns. I'm an attorney with the law firm Lewis, Longman and Walker. I'm primarily in environmental law and also a little bit of land use law as well. I'm a Florida native. I was born in Hastings and raised there which is in Northeast Florida, just outside of St. Augustine. I went to the University of Florida for undergrad and got a degree in construction management. After undergrad I went back to work on my family's farm. I was the 5th generation in my family to farm. We are all, or were all, potato farmers. So, I spent about 4 or 5 years growing and helping manage my family’s potato production. Then while I was there, I got involved in several environmental issues that intersected with the agricultural community and through that experience I got an interest in law. I decided to go back to school and I went to the University of Florida and I got a law degree. Then after law school I got hired by Lewis, Longman and Walker, and I now live and work in West Palm Beach.

When did you first become interested in food policy? 

I first became interested in food policy in law school. I had the opportunity to intern at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and up until that point, most of my understanding of food and food production was pretty much limited to agricultural production. My time at Harvard really opened my eyes to how much more there is to food production and processing and distribution and consumption and waste, and the framework of looking through food systems really caught my imagination. Ever since then, it's been something I've been kind of interested in because it's a really important thing.

In what ways does your job intersect with food policy? 

There are primarily two ways. Land use law has a very direct impact on all sorts of aspects of the food system based on zoning laws and regulations that control where we can build things. As you can imagine, it has a very direct impact on cities and how much green space they have, and whether they allow for urban agriculture or raising animals in the proximity of residential areas with food that's getting produced.

The second way my job kind of brushes up against food policy is a little more subtle. Most of the work I do relates to water law and water issues. As you can imagine, we need water to grow our food, and in particular, we need clean water to grow our food. There are a number of federal regulations that control and dictate what constitutes clean water and creates a regulatory framework for at least attempting to clean water that's already dirty and then keep water that is clean, clean into the future. And so that impacts the food system in a couple of ways. When growing vegetables, if you're irrigating your land, you don't want to be irrigating your land with water that has a lot of pollutants in it. Especially for something like leafy green vegetables where you might be irrigating through a sprinkler system or something that contacts the leaves. So, if you don't have clean water, then you are going to be putting dirty water out there and it might get on the leaves and it might make a bunch of people sick.

Another way that is probably even more subtle but a lot more interesting is through what's known as bioaccumulation. Pollutants that go into the water can actually filter up into the food chain through sedimentation and then accumulation as small organisms living in polluted sediment absorb pollutants. Then bigger organisms come and eat those small ones. When they eat those small ones, they take on all the pollutants that are in them. It goes on up the food chain until you get to bigger and bigger things like fish and things that we actually consume. Over time, if your water is not clean enough and a lot of pollutants are going in the water, then you can end up accumulating a lot of serious pollutants into your food supply. It's very subtle but, as we're finding out, it can have significant impacts on really important parts of our food system.

What are some gaps or challenges that can be addressed by food policies? 

A good example that I always think about is hunger and food security. Florida produces an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, yet if you look at the statistics a pretty surprising number of children are food insecure in our state. I believe it's somewhere in the realm of between 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 kids are food insecure at some point during the year. Looking at things through the lens of food systems allows you to identify if it is a production issue, a distribution issue, or an access issue. Are we not sending produce to where the hungry kids are? Can they not afford the produce? Once you identify where the weak link in the chain is, you can then use food policy to address and hopefully strengthen and mitigate those issues.

Another interesting food policy tie-in is the environment. Food waste is a pretty serious issue. I think the older statistics are around 1/3 of the food that we produce doesn't get eaten and so it typically ends up in a landfill. One of the consequences of that is it's a huge contributor to greenhouse gases. It's primarily methane which is extremely potent, much more potent than carbon dioxide. So, knowing that is an issue we can then ask why this food is getting wasted and food policy helps us find solutions to reduce food waste or recycle it and put it to other uses that have better outcomes than sitting and decomposing in a landfill.

What are your hopes for the future? How can policy get us there? 

I think my main hope, well my belief really, is that we can produce enough food to feed everyone in the world. Currently we actually produce enough calories that could feed everyone but it's really not just making sure people have enough calories, it's also about making sure that people have proper nutrition. I think it should be one of the main goals of our society as citizens to make sure that we're producing enough healthy food and making sure that it gets to everyone who needs it. Looking at things from a food systems lens, is probably our best hope of being able to achieve that goal because it can identify issues with production, with distribution, with cost. And it's going to be through those various frameworks that help us figure out why children can’t get fed and why the food that they need is not getting to them. Hopefully, at that point we can get enough people to care to make a change and fix it.

Bio: Christopher Johns is a native Floridian, born and raised in Hastings, Florida. The son of a 4th generation farmer, Chris was raised helping his family on their commercial farm. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida, he returned to his family’s farm to help manage production of their potato crop. After returning to the farm, he participated in the Florida Natural Resources Leadership Institute, where he graduated a fellow of Class IX. Chris earned a J.D. with a certificate in environmental and land-use law from the University of Florida Levin College of Law. While in law school, Chris interned at Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.

Today, Chris lives in West Palm Beach and works for, Lewis, Longman & Walker, as an environmental attorney. He represents a spectrum of clients from local governments, to Indian tribes, to private landowners, including agricultural producers, on complex issues involving environmental permitting and natural resource protection and development. He remains interested in food policy and using his skills, experience, and insights to foster meaningful improvements to food systems throughout Florida.

Disclaimer: The views of the interviewee do not represent the views of the Florida Food Policy Council. We are a forum for the offering and sharing of information and encourage diversity and communication within the food system.

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